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Puja Ponders

The skies are overcast and gloomy and the streets wet, muddy and crowded. The mood is one of apprehension.

The burning question will it rain during Durga Puja or not?

Every good Calcuttan seems to be worried about this purely because Durga Puja is early this year.

As opposed to the customary mid October, the lunar calendar has slotted the festival such that it will end before September finds the time to say goodbye to 2009!

I say there is no point worrying about what is not in our control.

Energy will be better spent thinking of the possibilities of four days of pure bliss.

Yes, even today, Kolkata comes to a standstill for four days for Durga Puja.

And what better way to celebrate the festival than staying home and indulging in culinary delights?

To me, that is a no-brainer.
A bigger issue is what should the content of the culinary cornucopia be?

Will it be the choicest of hilsa? Will it be the best of mutton? Will it be country chicken or the paler poultry offering? Will we stay true to tradition and turn devout vegetarians for those four days?

Will the sweets be bought from North Calcutta or South Calcutta? Will the sweets be coming in every day or should they be stocked beforehand? Will we even attempt to create some traditional stuff at home? Will we be envious of our neighbours and pointedly drop in just when the enticing aroma of Malpoa wafts out of their windows?

Will we go to the market every morning? Will the prices be hiked come Ashtami, the pinnacle of Durga Puja? Will we have to go at first light lest the freshest catch is claimed by an earlier bird?

As you can see, conundrums are countless and all equally important.

I have noticed a subtle change in this pondering cauldron.
People like me, who stay in a walled community, have an extra choice to deal with.
Will we eat with the community or not?
More often than not, it is a resounding “yes”, though the” yes” is tinged with a copious dollop of circumspection.

Do we trust the caterer's ability to recreate the magic that our grandmothers used to conjure up?
Will the caterer choose the best of ingredients like our fathers did?

Will the cooking medium consist of pure ghee?
Then there is the question of vegetarian vs. non-vegetarian.
Ashtami is earmarked for vegetarian food.

Steamy khichuri with crisp begun bhaja. Pale white luchis with ochre cholar dal. A sliced papad on the side. Sticky sweet date and tomato chutney making a yummy crimson pool in the middle of the platter. Nut strewn payesh set in individual bowls. Mishti pan to end with. And if the organizers are generous, the best sandesh will be there as well, two per head.

Some people say that Ashtami is ripe for non-vegetarian fare. But there are restrictions. Mutton can be cooked, but without onion and garlic. The result is a curry redolent of a variety of spices cumin, coriander, cinnamon, cardamom, clove, nutmeg and mace. To lap up that curry with warm rice is a moment I eagerly wait for.

Saptami, nabami and dashami can swing both ways. Both vegetarian and non-vegetarian are allowed. Indulgence in the biggest prawn, the freshest fish or the choicest of vegetables are not unheard of.

So the community will gather at the large parking lot, arriving quickly to pounce upon the best of everything. Jostling to find a seat, the patriarch of the family will take a bite and proclaim the begun bhaja not worthy to even pretend to be a shadow of what his late mother used to turn out. The matriarch will carefully poke the fish and question its freshness and source. The young daughter will dive back in the crowd in an attempt to find a fork and a spoon. Manicured fingernails cannot be stained with omnipresent turmeric! The son, resplendent in his new crisp white kurta will hold his plate at least a foot away from his body lest turmeric again rears its ugly head. And all this while, the whole family will complain about how community eating is not a patch on a leisurely lunch at home.

The same scenario will repeat itself every day, for four days, for three meals. The mutton will be too stingy. The rice, overcooked. The vegetables will be accused to have overdose of salt. The chutney will either lack in sweetness or be too tart.

But interestingly, the crowd will be there, everyday, for four days, three meals a day. Despite the loud complaints, despite the lines, despite the obvious discomfort of eating in a parking lot.

Is it because we secretly love the crowd and the discomfiture?

Or is it divine intervention?

I know not. I merely wait for my turn to dig into some more mutton.

Photo: Zahedul I Khan

 
 

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